Fantasy on TV: How 'Game of Thrones' Succeeds Where 'True Blood' Fails

The two HBO shows illustrate the perils and opportunities of adapting books for the screen



After a summer when HBO garnered critical acclaim and new audiences with its epic fantasy series Game of Thrones, it's been fascinating to watch True Blood, the show that introduced HBO to the genre, go dramatically off the rails in its fourth season. Both shows face the challenges of mustering very large casts in the service of complex storylines that are not always obviously related to each other, along with detailed magical mythologies and histories. But while Game of Thrones hewed closely to the original plotlines and pacing in George R.R. Martin's book, Alan Ball and his writing staff have diverged wildly from Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire mysteries as they've moved deeper into True Blood. Taken together, the two shows represent the perils and opportunities of adapting an existing fantasy franchise.

Harris's Southern Vampire books may be fairly conventional paranormal romances, lacking some of the higher-level philosophical and mythological resonances Alan Ball's added to the franchise. But they're an impressive example of world-building and pacing. Harris started out with vampires and shape-shifters, giving readers a grounded sense of those concepts and mythologies before adding werewolf hierarchies in the third book, witches in the fourth, and faeries in the eighth. That pacing gave readers time to get a full sense of how different kinds of magic work before introducing new part of the world and explaining how different concepts interacted.

By contrast, the show's moved faster, introducing both witches and the idea that Sookie has faerie powers this season. As a result, both concepts and characters have suffered. When Sookie miraculously cured Eric of his witchcraft-induced amnesia with faerie abilities she hasn't bothered to explore and that haven't been mentioned since the first episode of the season, it felt lazy, not exciting—a plot device swooping in when it was convenient rather than after it had been earned.

Adding to the confusion is the way HBO's adaptation has added characters to the franchise that haven't done much to advance the show's themes. In the books, Sookie's boss Sam was a lone wolf—or collie, depending on what he's shapeshifting into on any given day—with family in another state. In the show, he's been given a shifting but shiftless brother, Tommy, who mostly serves to illustrate, repeatedly and at great length, that Sam is foolish to let him stay in Bon Temps because Tommy constantly betrays him. When Tommy was killed off in Sunday's episode, it was a relief, both in that it cleared out an over-crowded cast, and that it ended a pattern of behavior that had no clear move towards growth or resolution.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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